PM Lee: Small states like S'pore cannot take multiple hits the way big countries do

Singapore can disappear overnight and the world will just carry on.

Belmont Lay | September 28, 2019, 03:45 AM

Small states must work together to advance their common interests and amplify their influence, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sep. 25, 2019 at the Forum of Small States (FOSS) in New York.

Here are some of the issues that PM Lee talked about at the event held on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA):

Act as a collective

• Small states have limited influence on their own.

• PM Lee said the ability of small states to determine their own destinies will become “severely circumscribed” if they do not act as a collective.

• Smaller countries are sovereign or independent by name, but their ability to determine their own destinies will be limited “if we do not manage our external relations carefully”, he said.

• PM Lee said: “This is because small states have no intrinsic relevance to the workings of the international system. Unlike larger and more powerful countries, small states do not set the agenda or decide the trends.”

• He also said few small states in history are as "long-lived" as Switzerland and Venice.

• He said: “If Singapore disappears tomorrow, the world will probably continue on just fine.”


• Nations with populations of less than 10 million are particularly vulnerable to global events comapred to larger states.

• PM Lee said: “Climate change and rising sea levels are a threat to our very existence.”

• “Our club has grown over the years because the fundamental realities and vulnerabilities of small states have not changed,” he said.

• PM Lee said smaller economies of these nations are also more exposed to fluctuations in the global economy.

• He said: “Our margin of error is much narrower than big states, which can absorb multiple hits.”


• Some threats include:

War: Small states lack strategic depth to defend themselves.

Extreme weather: Small states can take years to rebuild and recover, such as the Bahamas being hit by the recent hurricane Dorian.

Advantages of small states exist

• However, small states are efficient.

• PM Lee said: “This does not mean that small states are helpless or have no agency.”

• Small nations can respond more nimbly and adapt more easily to changing circumstances.

• They can also be motivated to deal more decisively with challenges and threats owing to their increased “sense of insecurity, and even paranoia”.

• PM Lee said: “With more constrained options, our collective minds are more readily focused."

• Governance is also streamlined for small states.

• PM Lee said: "And we are less hampered by regional interests and differences, or multiple levels of government that bigger countries must grapple with.”

Small states make their impact in the UN

• Small countries have to work together to amplify their influence collectively in institutions such as the UN.

• PM Lee noted that several FOSS countries have made “significant contributions” to the UN, such as by serving in the UN Security Council (UNSC).

• Five of the six main committees in 2019’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) are chaired by FOSS members.

• Singapore served as a non-permanent member of the UNSC from 2001 to 2002.

• PM Lee said: “Small states can and must make a contribution to the work of the UN, because it is in our interest to have a strong UN and multilateral system.”

What is the Forum of Small States?

The Forum of Small States was hosted by Singapore at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Singapore to the United Nations in New York.

The FOSS was also founded in 1992 by Singapore in New York.

It is an informal grouping of smaller nations that aims to give them a bigger collective voice in the UN.

The group has grown over the years.

It went from an initial 16 nations to the 107 member states today.

These include Norway, New Zealand, Ireland, Austria and Finland.

Leaders and dignitaries from around 40 countries attended the 2019 event.

Tijjani Muhammad Bande, president of the 74th UNGA, and who is also the Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the UN, said the FOSS is a vital grouping as it cuts across geographical region: "It is not bound by the normal divisions of north, south, east and west. It is a forum which cuts across all regions in the world. If you look across the world in geopolitics (today), you understand why we need small states to be a beacon of stability to all of us," he said.